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‘The Power of One’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 27, 1992

"The Power of One" goes for the big emotions in scenic southern Africa. It's about the great land and its happy, singing black people, its nasty Boers, and a Great White Kid who delivers everyone to the Promised Land. It's resounding bunk, candied over with the lush music of Johnny Clegg and hyped to death by director John ("Rocky") Avildsen.

Based on Bryce Courtenay's novel, the movie traces the childhood and early adolescence of P. K., a white South African boy. Raised on a veldt farm by his English parents (and the Zulu help), he's orphaned and sent to a boarding school full of British-hating Afrikaners. During World War II, as a teenager, he stays in a prison as the ward of a politically incarcerated German, Armin Mueller-Stahl.

While in prison, P. K. (Simon Fenton) is befriended by inmate Morgan Freeman, who teaches him a ferocious, eight-punch boxing combination. The boy also learns tribal dialects and the political power of the natives' singing. Because he unites the bickering tribes, the black prisoners ascribe a certain saintliness to him. That reputation, coupled with a growing political consciousness, serves him thereafter. So does the boxing. While attending a liberal high school (presided over by headmaster John Gielgud), he starts up (illegal) English classes to the blacks. Falling in love with the daughter (Fay Masterson) of a right-wing Afrikaner, he also transforms her political views.

These episodes constitute a prolonged mythic quest for the boy. It starts at an early age, when he undergoes a ritual initiation, courtesy of his Zulu nanny, to cure his bedwetting. A witch doctor makes him face an enormous bull elephant. If he can stand fearlessly before it, the mystic tells him, then all else will be an African breeze. He does so and becomes protected for life.

The movie has its stirring moments. The horrors the young boy faces, as the only British-descended South African in the school, are harrowing. As the head-bowed, yet dignified prisoner, Freeman displays his usual graces. But his all-purpose-African accent comes from no known country.

The problem with "Power" is its inorganic mixture of gritty brutality and mythic fantasy. It just doesn't blend. The whole combined, painful South African political experience is used tritely as a backdrop for P. K.'s pseudo-beatific ascendancy. The height of this absurd, white-liberal fantasy is when 12-year-old P. K. leads the prison tribes in an ambitious cross-tribal choral presentation before a group of visiting white dignitaries. That's when you realize "Power" isn't a gripping political drama at all. It's a South African version of "The Sound of Music."

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